Read CHAPTER III - A GALLANT OUTLAW of The Thrall of Leif the Lucky, free online book, by Ottilie A. Liljencrantz, on ReadCentral.com.

Two are adversaries;
The tongue is the bane of the head;
Under every cloak
I expect a hand.
Ha’vama’l

For a while the road of the little party ran beside the brawling Nid, whose shores were astir with activity and life. Here was a school of splashing swimmers; there, a fleet of fishing-smacks; a provision-ship loading for a cruise as consort to one of the great war vessels. They passed King Olaf’s ship-sheds, where fine new boats were building, and one brilliantly-painted cruiser stood on the rollers all ready for the launching. Along the opposite bank lay the camps of visiting Vikings, with their long ships’-boats floating before them.

The road bent to the right, and wound along between the high fences that shut in the old farm-like manors. Ail the houses had their gable-ends faced to the front, like soldiers at drill, and little more than their tarred roofs showed among the trees. Most of the commons between the estates were enlivened by groups of gaily-ornamented booths. Many of them were traders’ stalls; but in one, over the heads of the laughing crowd, Alwin caught a glimpse of an acrobat and a clumsy dancing bear; while in another, a minstrel sang plaintive love ballads to a throng that listened as breathlessly as leaves for a wind. The wild sweet harp-music floated out and went with them far across the plain.

The road swerved still farther to the right, entering a wood of spicy evergreens and silver-stemmed birches. In its green depths song-birds held high carnival, and an occasional rabbit went scudding from hillock to covert. From the south a road ran up and crossed theirs, on its way to the fiord.

As they reached this cross-road, a horseman passed down it at a gallop. He only glanced toward them; and all Alwin had time to see was that he was young and richly dressed. But Helga started up with a cry.

“Sigurd! Tyrker, it was Sigurd!”

Slowly drawing rein, the old man blinked at her in bewilderment. “Sigurd? Where? What Sigurd?”

“Our Sigurd Leif’s foster-son! Oh, ride after him! Shout!” She stretched her white throat in calling, but the wind was against her.

“That is now impossible that Jarl Harald’s son it should be,” Tyrker said soothingly. “On a Viking voyage he is absent. Besides, out of breath it puts me fast to ride. Some one else have you mistaken. Three years it has been since you have seen ”

“Then I will go myself!” She snatched the reins from Alwin, but Tyrker caught her arm.

“Certain it is that you would be injured. If you insist, the thrall shall go. He looks as though he would run well.”

“But what message?” Alwin began.

Helga tried to stamp in her stirrups. “Will you stand there and talk? Go!”

They were fast runners in those days, by all accounts. It is said that there were men in Ireland and the North so swift-footed that no horse could overtake them. In ten minutes Alwin stood at the horseman’s side, red, dripping, and furious.

The stranger was a gallant young cavalier, with floating yellow locks and a fine high-bred face. His velvet cloak was lined with ermine, his silk tunic seamed with gold; he had gold embroidery on his gloves, silver spurs to his heels, and a golden chain around his neck. Alwin glared up at him, and hated him for his splendor, and hated him for his long silken hair.

The rider looked down in surprise at the panting thrall with the shaven head.

“What is your errand with me?” he asked.

It was not easy to explain, but Alwin framed it curtly: “If you are Sigurd Haraldsson, a maiden named Helga is desirous that you should turn back.”

“I am Sigurd Haraldsson,” the youth assented, “but I know no maiden in Norway named Helga.”

It occurred to Alwin that this Helga might belong to “the pack from Greenland,” but he kept a surly silence.

“What is the rest of her name?”

“If there is more, I have not heard it.”

“Where does she live?”

“The devil knows!”

“Are you her father’s thrall?”

“It is my bad luck to be the captive of some Norse robber.”

The straight brows of the young noble slanted into a frown. Alwin met it with a black scowl. Suddenly, while they faced each other, glowering, an arrow sped out of the thicket a little way down the road, and whizzed between them. A second shaft just grazed Alwin’s head; a third carried away a tress of Sigurd’s fair hair. Instantly after, a man crashed out of the underbrush and came running toward them, throwing down a bow and drawing a sword as he ran.

Forgetting that no weapon hung there now, Alwin’s hand flew to his side. Young Haraldsson, catching only the gesture, stayed him peremptorily.

“Stand back, they were aimed at me! It is my quarrel.” He threw himself from his saddle, and his blade flashed forth like a sunbeam.

Evidently there was no need of explanations between the two. The instant they met, that instant their swords crossed; and from the first clash, the blades darted back and forth and up and down like governed lightnings. Alwin threw a quieting arm around the neck of the startled horse, and settled himself to watch.

Before many minutes, he forgot that he had been on the point of quarrelling with Sigurd Haraldsson. Anything more deft or graceful than the swiftness and ease with which the young noble handled his weapon he had never imagined. Admiration crowded out every other feeling.

“I hope that he will win!” he muttered presently. “By St. George, I hope that he will win!” and his soothing pats on the horse’s neck became frantic slaps in his excitement.

The archer was not a bad fighter, and just now he was a desperate fighter. Round and round went the two. A dozen times they shifted their ground; a dozen times they changed their modes of attack and defence. At last, Sigurd’s weapon itself began to change from one hand to the other. Without abating a particle of his swiftness, in the hottest of the fray he made a feint with his left. Before the other could recover from parrying it, the weapon leaped back to his right, darted like a hissing snake at the opening, and pierced the archer’s shoulder.

He fell, snarling, and lay with Sigurd’s point pricking his throat and Sigurd’s foot pressing his breast.

“I think you understand now that you will not stand over my scalp,” young Haraldsson said sternly. “Now you have got what you deserved. You managed to get me banished, and you shot three arrows at me to kill me; and all because of what? Because in last fall’s games I shot better than you! It was in my mind that if ever I caught you I would drive a knife through you.”

He kicked him contemptuously as he took his foot away.

“Sneaking son of a wolf,” he finished, “I despise myself that I cannot find it in my heart to do it, now that you are at my mercy; but I have not been wont to do such things, and you are not worth beginning on. Crawl on your miserable way.”

While the archer staggered off, clutching his shoulder, Sigurd came back to his horse, wiping his sword composedly. “It was obliging of you to stay and hold High-flyer,” he said, as he mounted. “If he had been frightened away, I should have been greatly hindered, for I have many miles before me.”

That brought them suddenly back to their first topic; but now Alwin handled it with perfect courtesy.

“Let me urge you again to turn back with me. It is not easy for me to answer your questions, for this morning is the first time I have seen the maiden; but she is awaiting you at the cross-roads with the old man she calls Tyrker, and ”

“Tyrker!” cried Sigurd Haraldsson. “Leif’s foster-father had that name. It is not possible that it is my little foster-sister from Greenland!”

“I have heard them mention Greenland, and also the name of Leif,” Alwin assured him.

Sigurd smote his knee a resounding thwack. “Strangest of wonders is the time at which this news comes! Here have I just been asking for Leif in the guardroom of the King’s house; and because they told me he was away on the King’s business, I was minded to ride straight out of the city. Catch hold of the strap on my saddle-girth, and we will hurry.”

He wheeled Highflyer and spurred him forward. Alwin would not make use of the strap, but kept his place at the horse’s shoulder without much difficulty. Only the pace did not leave him breath for questions, and he wished to ask a number.

It was not long, however, before most of his questions were asked and answered for him. Rounding a curve, they came face to face with the riders, who had evidently tired of waiting at the cross-roads. Tyrker, peering anxiously ahead, uttered an exclamation of relief at the sight of Alwin, whom he had evidently given up as a runaway. Helga welcomed Sigurd in a delighted cry.

The young Northman greeted her with frank affection, and saluted Tyrker almost as fondly.

“This meeting gladdens me more than tongue can tell. I do not see how it was that I did not recognize you as I passed. And yet those garments, Helga! By St. Michael, you look well-fitted to be the Brynhild we used to hear about!”

Helga’s fair face flushed, and Alwin smiled inwardly. He was curious to know what the young Viking would do if the young Amazon boxed his ears, as he thought likely. But it seemed that Helga was only ungentle toward those whom she considered beneath her friendliness. While she motioned Alwin with an imperious gesture to hand her the rein she had dropped, she responded good-naturedly to Sigurd: “Nay, now, my comrade, you will not be mean enough to scold about my short kirtle, when it was you who taught me to do the things that make a short kirtle necessary! Have you forgotten how you used to steal me away from my embroidery to hunt with you?”

“By no means,” Sigurd laughed. “Nor how Thorhild scolded when we came back! I would give a ring to know what she would say if she were here now. It is my belief that you would get a slap, for all your warlike array.”

Helga’s spur made her horse prance and rear defiantly. “Thorhild is not here, nor do I expect that she will ever rule over me again. She struck me once too often, and I ran away to Leif. For two years now I have lived almost like the shield-maidens we were wont to talk of. Oh, Sigurd, I have been so happy!” She threw back her head and lifted her beautiful face up to the sunlit sky and the fresh wind. “So free and so happy!”

Alwin thrilled with sudden sympathy. He understood then that it was not boldness, nor mere waywardness, that made her what she was. It was the Norse blood crying out for adventure and open air and freedom. It did not seem strange to him, as he thought of it. It occurred to him, all at once, as a stranger thing that all maidens did not feel so, that there were any who would be kept at spinning, like prisoners fettered in trailing gowns.

Tyrker nodded in answer to Sigurd’s look of amazement. “The truth it is which the child speaks. Over winters, stays she at the King’s house with one of the Queen’s women, who is a friend of Leif; and during the summer, voyages she makes with me. But to me it appears that of her we have spoken enough. Tell to us how it comes that you are in Norway, and whoa! Steady! Wh o a!”

“And tell us also that you will ride on to the camp with us now,” Helga put in, as Tyrker was obliged to transfer his attention to his restless horse. “Rolf Erlingsson and Egil Olafsson, whom you knew in Greenland, are there, and all the crew of the ’Sea-Deer’.”

“The ’Sea-Deer’!” ejaculated Sigurd. “Surely Leif has got rid of his ship, now that he is in King Olaf’s guard.”

The backing and sidling and prancing of Tyrker’s horse forced him to leave this also to Helga.

“Certainly he has not got rid of his ship. When he does not follow King Olaf to battle with her, Tyrker takes her on trading voyages, and she lies over-winter in the King’s ship-shed. There are forty of the crew, counting me, there is no need for you to smile, I can take the helm and stand a watch as well as any. Can I not, Tyrker?”

The old man relaxed his vigilance long enough to nod assent; whereupon his horse took instant advantage of the slackened rein to bolt off homeward, despite all the swaying and sawing of the rider.

That set the whole party in motion once more.

“You will come with me to camp, Sigurd my comrade?” Helga urged. “It is but a little way, on the bank across the river. Come, if only for a short time.”

Sigurd gathered up his rein with a smile and a sigh together. “I will give you a favorable answer to that. It seems that you have not heard of the mishap that has befallen me. The lawman has banished me from the district.”

It pleased Alwin to hear that he was likely to see more of the young Norseman. Helga was filled with amazement. On the verge of starting, she stopped her horse to stare at him.

“It must be that you are jesting,” she said at last. “You, who are the most amiable person in the world, it is not possible that you can have broken the law!”

Sigurd laughed ruefully. “In my district I am not spoken of as amiable, just now. Yet there is little need to take it heavily, my foster-sister. I have done nothing that is dishonorable, should I dare to come before Leif’s face if I had? It will blow over in time to come.”

Helga leaned from her saddle to press his hand in a friendly grasp. “You have come to the right place, for nowhere in the world could you be more welcome. Only wait and see how Rolf and Egil will receive you!”

She gave the thrall a curt shake of her head, as he stepped to her bridle-rein; and they rode off.

As Helga had said, the camp was not far away. Once across the river, they turned to the left and wound along the rolling woody banks toward the fiord. Entering a thicket of hazel-bushes on the crest of the gentle slope, they were met by faint sounds of shouting and laughter. Emerging into a green little valley, the camp lay before them.

Half a dozen wooden booths tented over with gay striped linen and adorned with streaming flags, a leaping fire, a pile of slain deer, a string of grazing horses, and a throng of brawny men skinning the deer, chasing the horses, scouring armor, drinking, wrestling, and lounging, these were Alwin’s first confused impressions.

“There it is!” cried Helga. “Saw you ever a prettier spot? There is Tyrker under that ash tree. And there, do you remember that black mane? Yonder, bending over that shield? That is Egil Olafsson. Now it comes to my mind again! To-night we go to a feast at the King’s house; that is why he is so busy. And yonder! Yonder is Rolf wrestling. He is the strongest man in Greenland; did you know that? Even Valbrand cannot stand against him. Whistle now as you were wont to for the hawks, and see if they will not remember.”

They swept down the slope, the high sweet notes rising clear above the clatter. One man glanced up in surprise, then another and another; then suddenly every man dropped what he was doing, and leaped up with shouts of greeting and welcome. Sigurd disappeared behind a hedge of yellow heads and waving hands.

Alwin felt himself clutched eagerly. “Donnerwetter, but I have waited a long time for you!” said the old German, short-breathed and panting. “That beast was like the insides of me to have out-shaken. Bring to me a horn of ale; but first give me your shoulder to yonder booth.”